The in Loss

Getting a little philosophical this morning, so if it’s early and you just want to drink your coffee in peace, I absolve you of responsibility. It’s been a strange couple of weeks on Trout Brook, and bound to get stranger, and there’s been a little more thinking than usual.

Those of us with aging parents know how the life equation flip-flops at a certain inflection point, how the giver of care becomes the taker, and all the love and tension that go along with that. It’s not a new story, nor a particularly compelling one, except when it’s happening to you and then you are riveted and it is difficult to think about anything else. What that point brings, sometimes, is a sadness and a lean toward depression.

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ excellent documentary about Ernest Hemingway and was struck all over again with how tortured and complicated his family life was, some of that inherited and some of it of his own doing. Depression and suicide ran in the family like blue eyes. He treated lovers, wives, and friends all horribly, apparently in service to a self-image that would not concede he was less than great and perfect and wonderful in all ways. Except, of course, when the black dog hit him and the depression consumed his brain.

Most writers, most artists I think, flirt with the black dog off and on. Writing is a narcissistic occupation even in its most innocent exercise and no writer, I hope, is content to examine only the sunny side of a character or situation. It’s a necessary part of the work to tiptoe to the edge of the crevasse and stared down into it, maybe even a horrible pleasure sometimes.

 

I suspect the Hemingway history is part of what underpins the still-prevailing cultural myth that writers and painters and sculptors and musicians and dancers must all suffer to practice their art at the highest level. It’s the kind of thinking that made Dave Brubeck take on a heroin addiction, to see if it would enhance his already magnificent talent. And I do think, when we’re young, we might embrace the possibility as if it were a simple equation: I hurt, therefore I create.

What I hope is that most artists realize, most people realize, that after a toe-dip in that black lagoon, that the making—writing, painting, building furniture—is more an occasion of joy than pain. The best work we do does not flourish in the dead crushed rock of depression or even unhappiness, but in joy. We do our work out of love as much as necessity, and depression, unhappiness, addiction, are not aids to creating, but impediments.

So as I watch my parents age and count their diminishments, I see them also learn that the losses they suffer are still less than the joy that remains, that always, always, there is something to come next, and it is well worth staying around for.

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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13 Responses to The in Loss

  1. judyalter says:

    What an encouraging post, not only for writers but for children of aging parents. On both counts, thank you. I”m thinking about forwarding it to all four of my children, who are wonderfully understanding and supportive of me as I age. Yes, that black dog is out there–and there’s one at my feet now–but it doesn’t have to consume us.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this, Dick. So many good points. We lost my mom last year, and my husband’s mom is dealing with aging and dementia now. It’s so very difficult, but can highlight the beauty of parent-child relationships.

    Your points about depression are excellent as well, and I hope to share them with my own kids, who love to create music but struggle without family’s inherited black dog.

    Thanks again, Dick. Be well.

    J

    • Julia Christina Hoover says:

      Ugh – “With Our,” not “Without.” Stupid spell check. And I’m not anonymous, I’m Julie! 🙂

  3. Julia Christina Hoover says:

    Oh, for heaven’s sake, maybe the third time’s the charm, HA!

    I’m not anonymous, I’m Julie! And spell check changed “with our” above to “without.”

    Hopefully, it will take this time… 🙂

  4. john sheldon says:

    Well said, Dick! Gayle and I also watched the Hemingway show and were similarly impressed. You said it well: I hurt therefore I write. Thanks!

  5. John Clark says:

    I walked that particular valley for years, emerging via recovery at age 32. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but am grateful because it had given me insights into many others who have won or lost that same struggle. I also have dealt with the black dog of depression and am again grateful for medication that controls it well. Both experiences have left me with gallows humor and endless ideas for writing projects.

  6. Brenda Buchanan says:

    This is a beautiful post, Dick. Every sentence resonates. Thank you.

  7. Jo Howell says:

    Very moving post. Thank you.

  8. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    It’s so easy to see the flaw. Thanks for the reminder to look for the flawesome.

  9. susanvaughan says:

    A very moving and thoughtful post, Dick. Ideas for everyone, not just us writers.

  10. Thanks, Dick.

    As I learned from handling many workers compensation, Maine State Retirement System and health insurance cases as a neutral, depression saps energy, motivation and self-esteem and can become a permanent and long-time disability, having genetic and/or experiential psychological causes.

    And a very good point, that as we age (I’m 80 and can attest to this from personal experience), many competencies we take for granted in earlier years no longer work so well (in my case, complex technology and creative writing!)

    Many people turn to illegal drugs and alcohol, but therapy and family support would be more appropriate, even as difficult as it is for many of us to admit we need help.

    As Sydney Pollock said to Dustin Hoffman, dressed like a woman in “Tootsie”, “I begged you to get some therapy!”

  11. Rae Francoeur says:

    I loved reading this very lovely piece, Richard. The black dog has passed through my neck of the woods more frequently in this time of COVID. The Hemingway documentary feels like a crevasse to me though I look forward to watching it.

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